The Ultimate Dressmaking Fabric Guide for Sewing Beginners

The Ultimate Dressmaking Fabric Guide for Sewing Beginners

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Everything you need to know to make the right dressmaking fabric
choices for your sewing projects.

We are definitely spoiled for choice when it comes to dressmaking fabric types! There are so many different types, colours and patterns to choose from✨ While it’s a privilege to have so many options, it also makes the choice even harderEspecially, for beginners, choosing the right dressmaking fabric is a tricky thing to do🤔

I’ve made wrong fabric choices myself in the past and in some cases, it even meant that the project failed because of this🙈

To save you this frustration and waste of money, you will learn everything you need to know about the most common dressmaking fabrics in this post🙌 Here’s what we cover to make you a fabric expert:

1) Historic Detour to Appreciate What We Have
2) Basics: Different Fibre Sources & Fabric Types
3) Deep Dive: Characteristics of Different Fabric Types

4) Final Thoughts

With no further delay, let’s get started!


Historical Detour to Appreciate What We Have

Nowadays, there is an enormous variety of textiles with several hundred different kinds of fabric to explore and fall in love with💕 But this hasn’t always been the case.

Clothing and textiles have a long history. To appreciate the luxury
we have now, it’s worth taking a quick look at the past.

Textiles have their own national and historical background which reflects the development and availability of materials in different civilisation at a specific time in history. It is unclear when exactly humans started to wear clothes but the assumption is that it started in the ice ages when humans used animal skins to protect them from the cold.

As the textile industry evolved, it also impacted how people dressed and as such the style of an era. What didn’t change over time is the fact that wearing clothes is only a human thing👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

Woman making silk in the early 12th-century in China. Painting by Emperor Huizong of Song.
Woman making silk in the early 12th-century in China. Painting by Emperor Huizong of Song.

The history of textiles and styles is super interesting and I definitely recommend you to dive deeper into this topic. Here are 3 book recommendations if you want to learn more about this:


Basics: Different Fibre Sources & Fabric Types

Textiles are made of fibres which can be created from many different materials. There are two main categories though: natural and synthetic fibres.

Natural fibres represent the original source of human clothes. They can either be animal, plant or mineral-based🌿🐑

Synthetic fibres are man-made fibres from artificial sources⚡ They are the result of humanity exploring ways of creating their own fibres in the 20th century.

This means that when looking at both, the natural and synthetic categories, we have a total of 4 fibre types: animal, plant, mineral and synthetic. Let’s look at some examples of sources.


The first step to make a fabric out of the fibre is to spin it so that you have a 
long strand which is called yarn🧶 The second step is to then use this strand and transform it into a fabric by different methods such as knitting, weaving, felting or crocheting.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what textiles are made of, let’s look at the different dressmaking fabric types and their characteristics.


Deep Dive: Characteristics of Different Fabric Types

It’s time for the deep dive! What we do here is to look at the different dressmaking fabrics and become aware of their characteristics.

Each and every fabric has its own characteristics, for example
in terms of warmth, elasticity, softness or breathability.

This is important to know, not only to make the right fabric choice for your sewing project, but also to make you aware how to handle your finished garment💡 It would be a shame if your new jumper would shrink after the first wash…

Selection of Fabric at John Lewis In London.
Selection of Fabric at John Lewis In London.

We will only look at the most common dressmaking fabrics. Covering all of them would be an endless exercise🙈 Also, note that this is a generalisation. Your fabric might also be a blend, so make sure to follow the care instructions from your fabric provider.

Cotton Fabric for Dressmaking

Cotton is probably the most popular fabric for dressmaking and absolutely deserves its top rank🌟 It’s easy to care for and has lots of good characteristics (see below). Also, it’s an easy fabric to sew with and therefore the perfect choice for sewing beginners.

Positives💚

  • Breathability
  • Softness
  • Comfortability
  • Easy to launder, cut and sew
  • Great for all seasons (keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer)

Negatives🚫

  • Wrinkles easily
  • Slow to dry
  • Poor elastic

How to care for it🔆

  • Machine-washable
  • Suitable for tumble drying
  • You can iron it with medium-hot heat and full steam

How to sew with it🧵

  • Pre-wash the fabric before you start sewing as it will shrink slightly
  • Easy to sew with, great choice for beginners
  • The general rule of thumb:
    • Use lightweight cotton for shirts
    • Use medium-weight cotton for dresses, skirts or curtains
    • Use heavy-weight cotton for pants, outer garments or work clothes

Linen Fabric for Dressmaking

Flax, the natural fibre that linen is made of, is not only very strong and absorbent but also one of the oldest known cultivated plants🌿 Linen fabric is known and loved for its coolness due to its weave and structure which makes it a great fabric for summer clothes☀️The fabric has a crisp feeling which some people like and others dislike.

Positives💚

  • Coolness 
  • Good heat conductivity 
  • Durability – fabric becomes softer with each wash
  • Flax is a strong and absorbent fibre
  • Dries quickly

Negatives🚫

  • Rather stiff fabric
  • Wrinkles easily
  • Poor elastics

How to care for it🔆

  • Machine-washable on low temperatures and gentle cycle
  • Dry cleaning recommended, also suitable for tumble-drying if low temperatures are used. Tip: remove fabric when it’s still a bit damp to avoid that it becomes stiff💡
  • Iron with medium-hot heat and full steam. Tip: protect your linen by using a towel over the fabric💡 Alternatively, don’t iron the linen at all and enjoy its natural creases.

How to sew with it🧵

  • Pre-wash the fabric before you start sewing as it will shrink a lot
  • Easy to sew with as it is not a stretchy or slippery fabric
  • Linen frays, so use pinking shears when cutting and apply the French Seam or Flat-Felled Seam method for your hems to give your project a professional finish.
  • The general rule of thumb:
    • Use lightweight linen for tops and dresses
    • Use medium-weight linen for trousers, skirts and shirts
    • Use heavy-weight cotton for jackets and suits

Jersey Fabric for Dressmaking

Jersey is a knit fabric and made of wool, cotton and synthetic fibres🐑🌿 It can be divided into two main categories: the single knitted jersey which is a very stretchy and lightweight fabric or the double knitted jersey which is a less stretchy and heavier fabric. Both are warm and soft which makes them popular for dressmaking👗

Positives💚

  • Elasticity 
  • Comfortability and softness
  • Versatility – there are many different jersey types and blends
  • Durability and easy to care for
  • Drapability

Negatives🚫

  • Prone to pilling
  • Can stretch out
  • A few things that need to be considered when sewing

How to care for it🔆

  • Machine-washable
  • Hang the jersey to dry (the heat of the tumble dryer could ruin the elasticity)
  • Jersey needs little or no ironing as the water removes wrinkles of the fabric, so just hang it right after washing

How to sew with it🧵

  • Pre-wash the fabric before you start sewing as it might shrink slightly
  • Be careful not to stretch the fabric when cutting; make sure it lays flat on the table and doesn’t hang over any side
  • There are a view things to consider when sewing with jersey:
    • Check when choosing your fabric that it matches the requirements of your pattern as there are many different jersey blends.
    • The best machine to sew with this type of fabric is an overlocker but a normal sewing machine will work as well (I have a Janome CXL301).
    • Use a ballpoint or stretch needle for your jersey project.
    • Use a stretch or a very narrow zigzag stitch.
    • Make sure not to pull the fabric when you sew.

Check out my first experience when sewing with a knit fabric and my learnings here.

Silk Fabric for Dressmaking

Silk is one of the strongest natural fibre and very popular for dressmaking thanks to its shininess and smoothness reflecting light at many angles✨ Also, it’s a very comfortable fibre but demanding to care for. The silk production process is controversial for two reasons: it has a high environmental impact and silk cultivation kills the silkworms.

Positives💚

  • Shimmering appearance
  • Lightness due to its low density
  • Comfortability, softness and smoothness
  • Great for all seasons – silk’s absorbency makes it comfortable to wear in summer, its low conductivity keeps you warm in winter
  • Protection from many biting insects, e.g. mosquitoes

Negatives🚫

  • Rather demanding to care for and sew with
  • Moderate to poor elasticity
  • Environmental impact of silk production
  • Prone to static cling due to its poor conductor of electricity

How to care for it🔆

  • Some silks are machine-washable, for others dry-cleaning is recommended. Run this test if unsure: wet a silk fabric piece in cold water, then lay it on a white material and press it with a warm iron (low heat). If it doesn’t leave any colour, it’s safe to wash it💡
  • When washing silk by hand, use lukewarm water and rinse well.
  • Dry silk by using a towel to squeeze out any surplus moisture and then hang to dry out away from the sun or direct heat.
  • Hard rubbing damages the silk, so don’t let the garment become too dirty before you wash it and rub any marks softly with a sponge.
  • Keep silk out of strong sunlight.
  • For most silk types, it’s best to iron the fabric when it’s still damp. Tip: keep a spray bottle close by💡Turn your fabric inside out and iron on the wrong side of your garment. Use the lowest heat setting on your iron (maybe your iron has a silk setting) and use a towel in between. Gently press instead of ironing forth and back and only leave it at a place for a short period of time.

How to sew with it🧵

  • Pre-wash the fabric before you start sewing as it might shrink slightly
  • When cutting, use pattern weights to hold the fabric in place as it’s very slippery and slides away easily. You might want to use a rotary cutter instead of scissors to prevent the fabric from shifting. Tip: you can also use a fabric stabiliser to stiffen the fabric but make sure to test it on a spare piece before applying it💡 Alternatively, place a layer of tissue paper below and above the silk fabric to handle it easier.
  • Be careful which marker you use – some of them might not disappear. Always test the marker on some spare fabric.
  • Unpicking a seam will leave marks and so will your pins. Use silk pins to be on the safe side and be careful when sewing. Test your machine stitches on spare fabric and use a smaller needle and shorter stitch length if stitches are skipped.  
  • If you have a very sensitive fabric, try using a walking foot and tie off threads instead of doing the backstitches.
  • Silk has a tendency to fray a lot. Move fast after cutting or if you have an overlocker, use it for the raw edges right after the cutting.

Wool Fabric for Dressmaking

Made from the hair of sheep or other animal breeds, wool is best known for its insulating properties which keeps you cosy and warm during cold months🐑 But did you know that wool is also fire resistant thanks to the moisture in each fibre? There might be some surprising characteristics you didn’t expect from this fabric🔥

Positives💚

  • Warmth – excellent insulating properties
  • Natural elasticity – bounces back to its original shape
  • Fire resistant as wool has moisture in each fibre
  • Durability thanks to its elasticity and flexibility
  • Resilience

Negatives🚫

  • A hairy texture which can feel a bit itchy
  • Some people are allergic to wool
  • Wool can form small balls of fuzz
  • Prone to moth attacks

How to care for it🔆

  • Hand wash wool garments in lukewarm water or to take them to a dry cleaner of your trust as they are prone to shrink. Only use the washing machine if it says so on the label and if your machine has a special wool setting.
  • Air dry wool garments – your clothes will shrink in the tumbler. Gently squeeze the water out of the garment and don’t wring it. Tip: give your wool garments a gentle stretch after the air drying so that it’s back to its original shape💡
  • To press wool, use steam heat. For that, set your iron to the wool setting and add water. Iron on the inside of your garment and use a pressing cloth.
  • Dry clean your woollen garments before storing them and use sealed containers to avoid moth attacks. 

How to sew with it🧵

  • For most wool fabrics, it’s best to use a ball-point needle and a silk thread.
  • Check if your wool fabric has already been preshrunk and if not, hand wash and air dry it before you start.
  • Especially with a thicker woollen fabric, it can be a bit bulky to work with, so choose a pattern that works with this type of fabric and think about which seam technique to use best (e.g. pinking instead of a French seam).
  • Consider lining your garment if the fabric is too scratchy for your skin.

Final Thoughts

Textiles are a fascinating topic and I definitely encourage you to learn more about its history as well as current dressmaking fabric types and the manufacturing processes behind it🙂

Also, as you could see in this post, each fabric has its very own characteristics. It’s is therefore important to do a bit of research if you are about to work with a fabric that you haven’t used before📚 My general top two pieces of advice:

  1. Prepare your fabric before you start sewing by washing and pressing it accordingly.
  2. Always do some test stitches on a spare piece of fabric before you start with the project.

I hope this post was helpful. Are there any other dressmaking fabric types that you’d love to learn more about which I didn’t cover in this post? Please let me know in the comments below and I’m happy to add an additional section⬇️

Happy sewing,

Yvonne

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